By Jon Melegrito
Special to the Manila Mail
WASHINGTON D.C. When Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba and a group of volunteers formed the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project (FilVetREP) in May 2013, they had three goals in mind: secure legislation awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the soldiers and survivors; work with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History to exhibit the Congressional Gold Medal; and develop a digital exhibition and education program to preserve the Filipino veterans’ historic legacy.
On October 25, FilVetREP accomplished its first goal. Speaker Paul Ryan led congressional leaders with a ceremony to present the Congressional Gold Medal. Attending the historic event were 21 living veterans and more than 400 family members from across the country.
Bronze replicas were later awarded to them individually at a medals presentation, followed by a Gala Dinner and program at the Ritz Carlton in Tysons Corner, VA.
“Now, we must continue to honor their legacy,” says Taguba, FilVetREP Chairman. “The American people need to know that the 260,000 soldiers who fought under the U.S. flag deserve their place in history. We owe it to them to preserve their memory.”
In late August this year, Taguba and members of FilVetREP’s executive committee met with Jennifer Locke Jones, Chair and Curator of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Division of Armed Forces History.
The discussion focused on plans to display the Filipino Veterans Congressional Gold Medal in an appropriate location at the Museum. Plans also call for an educational package to accompany the medal, with an iPad application, social-learning website and curriculum developed by FilVetREP in partnership with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program.
Centered on their “dedication to duty, loyalty to country and intrepidity in defense of the United States,” these materials will provide users with a constantly growing, social-learning community.
“Imagine millions of visitors from all over the world learning, probably for the first time, about the valuable role Filipinos played in World War II,” Taguba points out. “Through this education program, their story will now be enshrined in U.S. history.”
Understanding the Past
Explains Jones, who personally collected the Medal and brought it to the Museum with a security escort after the October 25 events: “The National Museum of American History explores the infinite richness and complexity of American history. It helps people understand the past to make sense of the present and shape a more humane future.”
But for this phase of the project to succeed, FilVetREP will step up its fundraising efforts to ensure that adequate resources can maintain this program. FilVetREP has also partnered with AARP and Next Day Better to gather oral histories through one-on-one interviews with living veterans. This work already started when some of the veterans and their next of kin, who came to Washington for the congressional ceremony, shared their stories with AARP’s media team.
FilVetREP is also collaborating with the San Francisco-based Bataan Legacy Project, which is pulling all stops to implement California’s state law AB 199. The law “encourages the inclusion of the role of the Filipinos during World War II in the social sciences curriculum for grades 7-12.” It was passed in 2011, a first for United States education.
The California Board of Education only revises its curriculum guidelines about once a decade, says Cecilia Gaerlan, executive director of the Project. “Since nobody is doing it, I seized this opportunity to get Bataan finally written into history. I started petitioning assembly members to strengthen the bill and I’m delighted that all this ground work has paid off.”
Not very many people have heard of the Bataan Death March, where 9,000 Filipino soldiers died, Gaerlan points out. “This history needs to be widely made known. Otherwise, the history is going to die.”
Remembering Our Heroes
At the World War II memorial the day after the congressional ceremony, more than 60 veterans and family members braved the early morning chill to pay tribute to those who died in battle.
“Let us remember why we honor the legacy of the veterans – those still living today and many who have since passed. Their patience and fortitude to overcome adversity and prove their loyalty to America are true testaments of their lasting patriotism and citizenship.”
In summing up the historic events in the nation’s capital, American Veteran Frank Francone, who represents the Philippine Scouts, noted: “It is estimated that 57,000 Filipino veterans died, and 900,000 civilians lost their lives. We’re here today to memorialize this sacrifice and it couldn’t be in a better place. But the memory will only be maintained as the story is told to our children and grandchildren.”
Meanwhile, FilVetREP will continue to add more names of living and deceased veterans to the National Registry and award them their medals in future events across the country. To register, go to www.filvetrep.org/registry.